Sound and Fury

Alterman has wrapped an entertaining and well-researched critique of conservative political criticism in the guise of a history of American “punditocracy,” the culture in which a “tiny group of highly visible political pontificators” make their living by purveying insider information in the “elite national media.” He analyzes why pundits are today more often Washington insiders, especially former government officials, than trained reporters. And he suggests that American political discourse will be made healthier by “destroying the prestige of pure opinion.”

The first two chapters largely are devoted to Walter Lippmann, who, as a brilliant non-Washington reporter-turned-commentator, serves as the standard for good pundits. However, Alterman pays scant attention to the historical context of the pre-1960’s, rather using early chapters to stage the decline of meaningful punditry during the Republican 1980’s. Although he pays deference to the rise of television culture, divisions over Vietnam, and the decline of the American center, the author’s principal purpose is to demonstrate how the far-right came to dominate the media’s political critique. Within this tale is an extraordinary and singular assault on George Will, who is portrayed as the consummate insider, rising to prominence by trading objectivity for fame.

SOUND AND FURY is in fact a chronicle or two phenomena, neither of which is explicitly stated. First, Alterman time and again demonstrates that conservative pundits simply have been more successful than their liberal counterparts in adapting to mass culture, particularly during the cable-television boom. Second, and more disturbing, is the implication that pundits guide the decision-making process of ordinary citizens. Or, to put it in Alterman’s terms, that citizens have the framework of political discourse decided for them.

Alterman’s study is no more impartial than the critics he derides, but is well worth attention. He has combed the news magazines and major op-ed pages of the past twelve years to show how spirited conservative commentary has outstripped its “confused” and “uninspired” opposition. One is still left to decide, however, why this has happened.